‘So, now with Ben Stokes ruled out, how do Rajasthan stop themselves from finishing 9th in this 8th team competition?’
These were the exact words uttered by Scott Styris in ‘The Dugout’ when news broke out on Tuesday that Ben Stokes was going to miss the rest of IPL 2021 after breaking his finger. And Styris was far from being the only one who wrote off the Royals as soon as the news came out. Social media was filled with “RIP RR” posts and you could understand why.
With Rajasthan already sweating on the fitness of Jofra Archer, the absolute last thing they needed was losing Stokes for the rest of the season. He might not be as valuable a T20 cricketer as Archer but, nevertheless, Ben Stokes is Ben Stokes. So, taking into consideration the fact that RR had built their entire franchise essentially around three English players, it was not wrong to presume that losing two of them ought to be fatal.
But, interestingly enough, there is a strong argument to be made that all this could be an overreaction. In fact, there is every reason to believe that all the mourning that has followed the news of Stokes being ruled out for the remainder of the campaign *IS* an overreaction.
Losing Stokes is not ideal. You would never want to lose a world class player and that too someone of Stokes’ calibre. But in a weird sense, eliminating all intangibles - Stokes’s aura, his presence and most importantly his reputation - losing Ben Stokes the T20 cricketer is far from the worst accident that Rajasthan could have encountered.
In his 9 games as opener, since the start of last season, Stokes has not taken the IPL by storm but he has clearly shown that, in T20 cricket at least, the top of the order is where he belongs, for it perfectly fits into his ‘settle and unleash’ style of batting that has yielded him so much success in ODI cricket. The impeccable ton he scored against Mumbai was a glimpse into his ceiling as an opener and his cameo in the penultimate game of the season versus Punjab - where he scored a fifty inside the powerplay - proved that he can be dynamic as anyone and has more than one gear and style to his batting.
But none of this still changes the fact that, despite all the experience he has under his belt, Stokes the T20 opener is still a rookie learning his trade on the job. The all-rounder, at the end of the day, has only batted 10 times in the IPL at the top of the order, in which he has succeeded twice. And hence whilst, thanks to him inherently being a world-class batsman, Rajasthan might have backed him to fire up top this season, there is no real evidence - with a significant sample-size - that suggests that Stokes is a very good T20 opener, let alone that he would have let records tumble.
This still does not take away the fact that losing Stokes will be a devastating blow to Rajasthan. But why the Royals are lucky - or, rather, blessed - is, because, of their four key overseas players for this season - Stokes, Morris, Archer and Buttler - it is Stokes who is the most ‘replaceable’ candidate. For two reasons. One, the franchise already have not one but two world class openers - or at least openers who are more proven and established than Stokes - who could directly fill in for the southpaw, and two, available in the market are top-order batsmen not just better than Stokes, but arguably than 99% of the openers in the entire league.
Rajasthan can immediately choose to fill the Stokes-shaped void in two ways. The first will be to simply move back Jos Buttler to the top of the order and ask him to open alongside Manan Vohra, while drafting in David Miller to play the role of the finisher. Buttler, as it has been well established now, is among the best - if not the best - T20 openers in the world and it was incidentally with the Royals three seasons ago that he took the IPL by storm by batting up top. Pushing Buttler to the top will also make up for the void in experience left by Stokes and it would, on top of that, allow a seasoned campaigner like Miller to operate in a position where he’s most comfortable at. This, you would think, would be on top of RR's agenda at this point in time, for it’ll enable them to replace Stokes with an opener who is evidently superior.
The second, more funky yet equally effective, option would be to replace Stokes with fellow Englishman Liam Livingstone. Last month, Livingstone made his ODI debut batting at No.6 but it has really been at the top of the order in T20 cricket that the right-hander has made a name for himself. Since the start of 2018, Livingstone has scored a remarkable 1,736 runs in T20 leagues across the world as an opener, at an astonishing SR of 151.0, and he is also someone who can literally serve as a like-for-like replacement for Stokes, thanks to the part-time spin he bowls. In the last three years in T20 cricket, Livingstone has bowled an average of 2.47 overs per match - way more than Stokes’ figure of 1.77 in the IPL - and has scalped 39 wickets at an ER of 8.10.
But even taking his bowling completely out of the equation, there is a case to be made that, from what we have seen thus far, Livingstone can not just serve as a replacement for Stokes, but potentially even out-do the latter.
As the chart above illustrates, among T20 openers, since the start of 2018, only Phil Salt has scored at a quicker rate than Livingstone. What’s remarkable is Livingstone’s average of 32.15, which is not too far away from the likes of Finch, de Kock and Hales. Whether the right-hander would be able to replicate his showings in the BBL, PSL and the Vitality Blast in the IPL will be the question, but in his brief stint with RR in the 2019 season - 70 runs in 4 games @ average 23 and SR 146 - Livingstone did show that he will have no trouble bringing to the fore his fearless brand of cricket.
Still, despite his impeccable numbers, elevating Livingstone to the ‘first-choice-opener’ chair will require Rajasthan to take a huge leap of faith and given his relative inexperience, it could very well be possible that the franchise could hesitate in doing so. But Stokes confirmed to be ruled out of the rest of the tournament means that RR can go hunt for replacements in the market where there are a plethora of world-class T20 openers and batsmen - some better than Stokes - waiting to be taken.
Alex Hales, Devon Conway, Glenn Phillips, Martin Guptill, Matthew Wade, James Vince, Aaron Finch and Lendl Simmons all went unsold in the auction, in which there was little to no demand for opening batsmen. As the table below illustrates, five of the aforementioned names - Hales, Phillips, Vince and Simmons - are among 12 openers to both average more than 30 and strike over 135 in T20s since the start of 2019.
Conway is a name missing from the table above, but that’s because the Kiwi has batted across multiple positions. Eliminating the ‘opener’ criterion, no batsman in the last two years has averaged as much as Conway’s 66.94, and his runs have also come at a quite astonishing strike rate of 142.77. Buying someone like a Conway would make the Rajasthan outfit all the more flexible as the New Zealander’s versatility means that RR could afford to open with Buttler without weakening the middle-order.
The only real downside is that none of these names offer a seam-bowling option like Stokes does. But that really should not matter, for Stokes’ bowling returns across the past two seasons have been hideous. Since the start of 2019, Stokes has sent down 32.5 overs in the IPL and has leaked 355 runs at an ER of 10.81. Among bowlers who have bowled a minimum of 30 overs in the IPL in this time-frame, Stokes’ figures are conveniently the worst. So it could be said that, unintentionally, RR have dodged a bullet in the form of Ben Stokes’ bowling.
To deduce Stokes the cricketer to just ‘an opener’ might be harsh, but since the start of last season, at least, Rajasthan have primarily looked at the Englishman not as an all-rounder, but just as someone who could provide impetus up the order. That he would have single-handedly won the franchise a bare minimum of 2 games this season, had he played, goes without saying, but Rajasthan must consider themselves lucky, for there are a plethora of other cricketers - both inside and outside their squad - who could potentially, at least with the bat, affect games of T20 cricket the same way Stokes can. Rajasthan Royals will be without the services of Ben Stokes for the rest of the season, but it is not the end of the world.